The usually calm waters of the Li River look ruffled in the erratic wind that blows in. The weather is squally for a summer evening with dark clouds hovering above the sharp ridges of the Karst mountains to our north. Hwang stops rowing and points downstream toward a bend of the river and a couple of bamboo rafts have suddenly popped into view, bobbing in the water, they slowly move toward us. 

I’m in Yangshuo to have a taste of local life in the smaller towns of China. Just 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the bustling city of Gulin, this quaint town is tucked into the folds of the spectacular range of the Karst Mountains – corrugated limestone peaks poking into the sky. Yangshuo, hemmed in with verdant countryside, has options galore for the intrepid traveller. The hiking trails and desolate dirt roads provide an intimate glimpse of the life of the ethnic minorities living for hundreds of years in the pretty villages that dot the countryside. Leisurely cruises along the Li River, which threads its way through this beautiful region of Guangxi province, offer stunning views of the Karst Mountains; while the ancient town of Fuli, just 5 miles (8 kilometers) from Yangshuo, has a history of more than 1,000 years and the best place in China to buy painted paper fans. 

For more on some of China’s most fascinating villages, check out the Eight Must-See Villages in Yunnan!

This quaint corner of Southwestern China also preserves a dying art that dates back more than 1,300 years: fishing with cormorants. For centuries, the cormorant fishermen of the Li river have lived a life amid a watery world with their cormorant fleets that are avid fish eaters and excellent swimmers. Today however, this ancient system of fishing is almost gone. Unlike Japan, where the last practitioners of this fishing technique are on an imperial payroll, serving as procurers of freshwater fish for the emperor’s table; here in Southern China, this ancient trade survives mostly as a tourist draw. Modern fishing methods have rendered this ancient bird-assisted practice commercially unviable. 

Hwang, my boatman, explains the technique. ‘In this traditional system, there are no fishing rods, no nets and no baits. The fishermen tie a loose collar around the cormorant’s throat, which they have trained for years to catch fish from the water. The snare prevents the bird from swallowing their catch and the fishermen retrieve the fish when they come back to the boats.’

cormorant fisher along Li River with Kast Mountain backdropThe bamboo rafts arrive shortly. The two rowers, wiry middle-aged men sporting conical fishing hats, throw me quick smiles and proceed to light up the boat lanterns. “The flaming lamps will attract the fish below the surface towards the raft. This is why fishing with cormorants is done after sundown” – Hwang quietly informs me. The cormorants, four in number, looking dignified in their black plumage and white crests sit patiently in the bows of the boats and watch the proceedings in mild amusement.  

The fishermen scoop up the birds and make a strange, piercing sound. The birds toss themselves into the river, which now looks almost inky in the gathering darkness. The black-feathered creatures bob up and down with the gentle tide. The fishermen hit the water with the crude oars and begin hollering a chant. And the birds are gone, diving into the depths of the dark waters. As if piloted by an intangible communication, the bamboo dinghies follow their trail. Hwang rapidly rows our boat to keep pace with the watery drama. A few hundred yards into the river, the fishermen stop and with a sudden swoosh, a couple of birds emerge out of the river. In the darkness, I can make out one of them is struggling with a rather large fish. One of the boatmen throws a net over the birds and hoists them up on the deck. They free the wriggling carp from one’s beak and whistle softly. The cormorant stiffens and noiselessly sputters out two more fish trapped in its gullet. Taking the cue, its partner delivers its catch, a couple of midsized carp, from its windpipe onto the deck.

man practicing cormorant fishing along Li River

Both of the birds get a few small fish as a reward, which they gobble up. Hwang tells me to tip the fishermen; a small supplement to the price of the freshly-caught large carp I have purchased from them. Hwang points to the mark where the bird’s beak struck the flesh.  “This makes all the difference in taste” – he says. The cormorant’s razor-sharp beaks kill the fish instantly, which is believed to make the meat tastier.

With a deep bow, the men steer back their dinghies into the darkness. Two more cormorants are waiting for their masters somewhere in the middle of the Li River.  

At dinner that night, the sprightly lady chef of my hotel gingerly places a bowl of beer fish before me and announces “This is the carp you bought this evening.” Fried golden-brown in a deep beer batter, beer fish is Yangshuo’s culinary highlight and has been my staple meal for the last three nights. The fresh and tender meat seasoned with fragrant spices has always tasted great, but tonight it leaves a sublime trail on my palate. Now I know why cormorant-caught pisces fetch a premium price and find themselves on Japan’s imperial table.

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Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer based in Calcutta. His works have appeared in publications worldwide including The Globe and Mail, Al Jazeera, National Geographic Traveller, Travel+Leisure, Lonely Planet, Mint, and Discover India and Outlook Traveller. His coffee table book ‘An Antique Land : A Visual Memoir of Ladakh’ is widely acclaimed. Additionally, Sugato has won a number of accolades for his photographic work including the Humanity Photo Award from UNESCO.